Building in Green; Can China Move 400 Million People to Its Cities without Wreaking Environmental Havoc? Eco-Urban Designer William McDonough Says Yes-And Beijing Is Listening

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Byline: Sarah Schafer And Anne Underwood

When American architect and industrial designer William McDonough visited the dusty Chinese village of Huangbaiyu, the villagers greeted him and his entourage of U.S. executives with a marching band, red carpet and fake red flowers to pin on their lapels. One anxious county official wearing a new blue dress shirt, still creased from the packaging, ordered volunteers to hold up an inflatable rainbow arch that had begun to sag. Foreign delegations often swing through rural towns, but McDonough is not just another big shot looking for a glimpse of "ordinary Chinese life." He's co-chair--together with Deng Xiaoping's daughter, Deng Nan--of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development. And he plans to change life in Huangbaiyu--and, for that matter, across China. "We hope whatever we do will make you happy," he announced to the curious crowd.

Huangbaiyu is set to become an experiment in ecologically balanced living, and McDonough is the visionary behind it. He and a team of Chinese and Americans have been charged with turning the village into a model of environmentally sound living. The team has begun construction on the first two demonstration homes and expect to build about 50 more by November to house some of the town's 400 families. If all goes as planned, families will move into a town center, increasing the amount of land available for farming, rather than live scattered about as they are now.

It's a challenge, to say the least. McDonough's team can spend only $3,500 per house. To pull it off, they're using local labor and local materials, all of which will either biodegrade safely or be completely recyclable. To avoid the pollution that is released during the firing of bricks, the walls are made of pressed-earth blocks. Between the blocks is straw, a byproduct of the local rice harvest that would otherwise go to waste. Walls are a half-meter thick, so houses are well insulated and won't need a lot of heating. Solar panels on the rooftops provide electricity and heated water. "We're doing everything with nothing," McDonough says.

China has a lot riding on the Huangbaiyu experiment--and so does the rest of the world. Beijing is now orchestrating an industrial revolution, hoping to telescope into a few decades what it took Western countries a century or two to accomplish. The plan is to move 400 million people--about half the rural population--into urban centers by 2030. Doing so will require expanding towns into cities and even building new metropolises from scratch. That also means creating education, security and economic policies to help the masses adjust to the speedy transition from an agrarian to an urban society. How China manages this transformation will have a huge impact on the country's--indeed, the world's--environment, and its social stability. McDonough's projects in the village of Huangbaiyu and six major cities are China's biggest experiment in ecologically sound development. If all goes well, his brand of ecodesign could serve as a model for China's new urbanism. "China wasted 200 years already," says Nie Meisheng, president of the China Housing Industry Association. "We have to catch up."

It's too early, of course, to say whether the plan will succeed or fail. McDonough has completed designs for the six new districts in cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou plus the village, but he's so far built mainly parks, waterways and roads. The goal is to have the first of the city sites ready for habitation in a few years. Although his plan has won the support of China's leaders--President Hu Jintao likes to repeat phrases from the Chinese translation of McDonough's book, "Cradle to Cradle"--the project relies on funding that is being raised by local governments and is not assured. And McDonough must first overcome a thousand gritty realities of life in China that could sidetrack his vision.

It makes a certain sense that China is turning to McDonough for an urban design vision. …